And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth
Peace among men of goodwill” Lk 2:14
“Yet midst the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain has rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
O hush the noise ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing”
Rev. Sears 1849
Christmas is close upon us, and this year no doubt, as with previous years, our Christmas cards will bring the word “PEACE” to our attention. Many cards will simply have on the front just this word “PEACE” in large letters against a suitable and richly coloured background. It should strike a deep chord. Peace is the deep longing and need of innumerable people all over the world. Everywhere, from needy individual hearts right up to the whole world of the nations, the cry is the same, a longing cry for peace. But it constantly escapes us. Yet this is the great promise of Christmas. This is what the angels sang about in the Christmas story, “peace on earth”; this is what was being offered; this peace is at the heart of Christmas. This is a very great gift; peace of heart and the deep serenity that surrounds it are worth more than a mountain of riches. Peace is a facet of “the pearl of great price”.
For most people Christmas brings a temporary respite of parties, presents and festivities of different kinds. But “peace on earth”, where does that fit in? That seems like wishful thinking. It seems to belong to the “fairy story” bit of Christmas. The great traditional carol which starts off with the verse, “It came across the midnight clear that glorious song of old……..peace on earth, good will to men” continues, however, with the verse quoted above which speaks of the “world suffering through the woes of sin and strife”, of “two thousand years of wrong” and “man at war with man”. We can relate to that sentiment. It is certainly not wishful thinking, nor a fairy story. Violence, wrong-doing and strife make up the stark reality of life.
The author was right to bring into his carol the sober reality of the strife of human existence. The Christmas story is not just a blind or ineffectual wishing of peace upon people. It goes much deeper than that. It recognises the fact that the world (that is people everywhere) has lost real peace and needs to know how to reach peace. It not only proclaims peace but shows the way to find it. The heart of the story is in the birth of a child, who is named by the angel as “Jesus”. Biblical names mean something, and “Jesus” means “Saviour” or “God saves”. His life’s work was enshrined in that name. He came to save people from their inherent propensity to selfishness and strife. In other words he came to challenge the fundamental problem of humanity, which is human “nature” as we know it. People have an inbuilt tendency to do the very things that destroy peace in their lives, and in Jesus God wants to do something about that problem.
Running through the bible there is one very simple proposition concerning our human living, and that is that righteousness of life and peace are inextricably linked together. We are told quite bluntly that “there is no peace for the wicked” (Is. 48:22) but “the end of the upright man is peace” (Ps 37:37), and (more poetically), “righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10), that is to say righteousness and peace “belong” to each other, they are united in the most intimate of ways. Peace cannot be dis-associated from character and godliness. So the Christmas story comes not simply with a vague wish for peace but with a clear challenge to live righteously and uprightly.
The Christ child has a fundamental role to play in this. It is not simply that he was born to live a model life of righteousness himself, something for us to copy. Our problem of living uprightly is much deeper than that, for we do not have within us the resources to live a truly upright life. He was born first to bring forgiveness to each one of us, since each one of us has failed in the walk of righteousness, and second to impart to us his own Spirit by Whom we may receive the inner resources and motivation to live uprightly. Both of these can come to us, not so much by his life as by his death. The Cross saw him bear the punishment of our sins, and his resurrection led to him securing the gift of the Spirit of God to infuse us with both a longing for godliness and with the power to be godly.
Christmas, then, is not just a party time! It’s a time of challenge. The challenge is to acknowledge our need of peace, our need to live in a godly manner in order to obtain it, our need to find the resources for godliness in Jesus and our need to come to him in faith and commitment. Where this is done peace will come, where this is rejected “Woe and strife will continue to prevail.
The Christmas message is not peripheral sentimentality, but a fundamental need everywhere in our world.
There are many who will find great peace by simply going into their own room and “kneeling at the manger” in commitment.
Bob Dunnett 1/12/17